If anything has been gleaned from this year’s Mt. Carmel boys basketball team, it is this:
“It seems that in the biggest games of the year we’ve played our best,” said Golden Aces coach Tyler Buss.
Bright lights have not blinded Buss’ team, as evidenced by a 31-point rout of Olney in the finals of the Capital Classic in November, or the 20-point win over Mt. Vernon, Ind. in the finals at the Carmi-White County Invitational in January.
On this eve of March, the lumens are increased as No. 1 seed Mt. Carmel (20-8) hosts third-seeded Flora (23-8) for the IHSA Class 2A regional championship and a berth in next week’s sectional at Du Quoin.
The tipoff at the Hilltop is at 7 p.m. The 3-point shootout competition precedes the title game at 5:30 p.m. Tickets cost $5 and will be available at the doors, which open at 5 p.m.
Mt. Carmel, 13-2 against Illinois competition won at Flora, 47-42, on Dec. 14. What Flora coach Phil Leib took away from that game is something the Wolves did not have then that they do have now.
“We didn’t have our 6-foot-5 Brazilian,” Leib said of physical foreign exchange senior Pedro Mendoza, who nursed his way through four fouls to be on the floor at the finish in Flora’s 69-63 semifinal victory over No. 2 seed Fairfield (20-9) Wednesday.
“(Mendoza) brings a physical presence to the interior of their defense,” Buss said. “Against a 2-3 zone it can be hard enough to get the ball inside anyway, then throw in a big body like that and it can be tough.
The way Mt. Carmel manhandled Carmi (18-10) in the semfinals, 72-29, “makes it a little scary,” according to Leib.
“Mt. Carmel is so good offensively. They lull you to sleep sometimes then get a layup,” said Leib, now with 251 wins in 14 years at the helm. “They’re going to be tough especially at home. I know they’ve gotten better. Hopefully, we have too.”
Buss said communication - particularly on defense against Flora sharpshooter Bryce Pearce - may be the biggest challenge for the Aces in the game.
“He’s got no memory,” complimented Buss of Pearce, who passed the 1,000-point mark in career scoring in Flora’s 71-62 win over pesky Lawrenceville in the first round Monday.
“If he misses three or four in a row he thinks he’ll make the next three or four in a row. That’s the sign of a great shooter.”
Fairfield held him in check for one half in the semifinal game Wednesday.
Pearce eventually freed himself enough to score 15 of his 17 points in the second half as the Wolves rallied to a 69-63 win.
“You can’t relax on him,” Buss said. “We’ll have to have fresh bodies always knowing where he’s at when we’re in a man-to-man.”
Thus, the need to communicate.
Leib said that “once we get (Pearce) going, we can about play with anybody. But if they take that something away, Bryce has learned to be unselfish enough to find the open guys.”
Flora has a multi-faceted defensive challenge as well, said Leib as he itemized the Mt. Carmel threats.
“(C.J.) Diel has really improved in the post, and you better find (Aces leading scorer Reece) Metcalf on the court or he will kill you.
“Levi Laws is like a spider. He must have eight eyes, because he can see the floor in any direction to find the open guy.”
As for the Aces, “we’ll have to spread the floor and knock shot shots down,” Buss said. “But we like our plan and our kids are confident.”
The lights will certainly be bright enough.